Hotere auction may be useful indicator

Artbeat column no 457 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 21.9.09

The art market overseas showed signs of contraction some time after the banking crisis hit which was experienced most acutely in places like New York and London which are also big financial centres. The downturn was milder and more ambivalent elsewhere. In New Zealand there has been evidence of pain here since our recession deepened in the wake of the crisis. Now there are some signs of recovery offshore. The offering of a Ralph Hotere collection in Auckland this Thursday is being watched to see what it shows about our market.

On June the 14th Art Basel, the world’s most important contemporary art fair, was reported as very buoyant. (The Economist 18/6/09). There was a record number of attendees. While the magazine’s correspondent admitted it was difficult to get “hard numbers” many dealers reported sales at around US$1 million, for works by Martin Kippenberger and Barbara Kruger, for example. It was thought some people were taking advantage of the recession to acquire bargains.

Even so the June sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London showed the scale of the downturn there. Sotheby’s contemporary offering realised 25.5 million pounds (US$41.9 million) while the equivalent sale in June 2008 generated 94.7 million pounds. Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening produced 19 million pounds this year while the previous year’s total had been 86.2 million. The Economist (4/7/09) said these figures were down to 2005-2006 levels, “an indicator of just how quickly the bubble inflated”.

Nevertheless the India Art Summit, an international fair held in New Delhi from August the 19th to the 22nd, seemed to give a lift to India’s hurting contemporary and modern market. There were 40,000 visitors and sales reportedly worth US$5.4 million. (The Economist 28/8/09) Some have questioned this but it does seem to have been a commercial and promotional success from many dealers’ reports.

The Hotere collection has been titled This Land. It is being offered by Art + Object, an auction house launched last year. One of the principals is Ben Plumbly, formerly of Dunedin and well-known to many people here, the son of Trevor and Pam Plumbly, the proprietors of the eponymous Princes Street auction house. You could say auctions and art are in Ben Plumbly’s veins. Art + Object styles itself “The 21st Century Auction House” and has made a special effort for This Land. The catalogue departs from the usual commercial format and has thoughtful essays by Kriselle Baker, David Eggleton and Oliver Stead, as well as Hamish Coney, another principal of Art + Object and by Mr Plumbly himself.

The collection is interesting. It belongs to an old and dear friend of the artist’s and covers the period from the time Hotere first went to Europe, in 1961 to about 1968, just before he came down to Dunedin, where, as it happens, he has been based ever since. I had the privilege to examine the collection closely a few years ago when it was sent down here from Wellington. In fact I catalogued it, which was very interesting.

The works are not juvenilia but they represent an early phase of the artist’s mature career when his output was in some ways significantly different from what it became. There are many things evident in this group, motifs and concerns, which one sees carried forward into the later production, as of course there are things from that later time which aren’t represented here. But Hotere has always been a friend and associate of other artists and it is interesting to see works in this collection which very clearly reflect that. There are things which remind one of Gordon Walters, Pat Hanly and Marilynn Webb, for example, which speak of the artist’s voracious visual appetite and reveal him experimenting with ideas which were later set aside.

The catalogue has been divided into groups of associated works, which is helpful. Among them Woman (lots 26-30) does not contain the spare line drawings one might expect but washed and inscribed studies in several manners. A glowing watercolour of a woman’s face beneath a headscarf is particularly attractive. In another section, Screenprint, lots 7 and 10, descriptively titled abstract works of 1965, are interesting for their relationship to Hotere’s Black Painting (Human Rights) series of 1964 which can be seen as a milestone. (There are very few works in the series. One is in the Auckland Art Gallery’s collection, another in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s holdings.)

In one of Ms Baker’s contributions she suggests the artist’s treatment of metal with an oxyacetylene torch might be regarded as a form of drawing. I think it’s more like water-colour painting while his use of a power grinder is a new form of etching or drawing.

No matter. There is much food for thought. It will be interesting to see how the sale goes.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times